There is a strong connection between the body-state and responses and our thoughts and emotions. Whenever we get alert as we prepare to perform a task or we get stressed, subtle changes take place in our body: non-essential organs slow or even shut down, the heart and breathing rates surge, basal temperature and perspiration increase and the blood vessels constrict toward the body’s extremities. Hormones flood the body and change its metabolic rate, and over time can even alter various organs and parts of the brain.
Most of the time we are not really aware of these processes, and, if stress is our usual state of being, those changes go largely unnoticed, because we get used to a new normal. When stress is chronic, it eventually causes illness: because a return to basal functioning, or a state of rest is never achieved, parts of the body start deteriorating under this repeated strain.
Biofeedback is a technique that allows monitoring physiological changes and then use this information to start altering and controlling bodily responses. Various sensors are fastened to the user to measure body temperature, muscle tone and heart rate, and in the case of neurofeedback devices, brainwaves, that is electrical impulses, are also monitored.
The use of biofeedback is based on the principle that even involuntary responses (for instance a heart beat) can be directed to some extent. For instance, athletes who engage in competitive sports such as archery, shooting or pole vaulting learn to release string or trigger, or plant the pole during that elusive moment where the heart at rest is about to catch its next beat. They do this through biofeedback training.
The first time you would use a biofeedback instrument, by being hooked to it, you would first create a baseline of your breathing rate, heart beat, body temperature and also electrical activity in the brain if using a neurofeedback instrument. A conversation with your coach/therapist might be alternately directed to recollecting joyful and then stressful events to allow establishing baselines for rest, alertness and arousal states. The increased tension and the return to a relaxed state would immediately show up on-screen. In short, your individual sympathetic and parasympathetic systems’ interaction would be visually apparent and would give you an instant feedback of how your body functions under various conditions.
Once this baseline is established, training begins with a series of computer games, or tasks, where you would alternate thought patterns, alter your breathing, engage in muscle relaxation and tension exercises until an optimal state of relaxation is attained. Relaxation does not necessarily means a feeling of calm similar to deep floating and close to sleepiness, but a state in which the mind-body synchronicity is such that the body is very relaxed, yet ready to move, and the mind is intensely focused.
This training allows you to learn making internal adjustments to your physiology: increasing tension when you need to focus on a task or a thought, or giving yourself a relaxation break when stress exceeds your resources at any given moment. Because physiological changes occur in conjunction with thoughts, emotions and certain behaviours, you can modify these by first changing the body response.
As you become proficient practicing biofeedback, you condition yourself toward altered physiological responses, and there is a point where the equipment is no longer necessary because your responses have become second nature.
Biofeedback is a popular training and conditioning method in the field of competitive athletics, since it increases focus and performance. It is also used in clinical settings for the treatment of various conditions such as headaches, chronic pain, cardiac arrhythmias and circulatory conditions.
Because strong emotions such as fear and anxiety provoke intense physical responses, biofeedback is a very promising tool for treating generalised anxiety disorder and post traumatic stress disorder: states of hyper-vigilance and high arousal can be easily and rapidly identified, feed back to the user who can then implement various relaxation strategies.
Finally, biofeedback allows you to understand and alter your behaviors and thought patterns, because of the very physiological effects they provoke: if your mind is overactive, caught in loops, you can identify the body response associated with it, and then learn ways to slow it down. Procrastination is as much a mindset as it is a body response: learn how your body functions when you dawdle, and you can remedy this. There’s a body baseline, a blueprint, for states such as frustration, phobia, irritation, and more. As you learn to listen to your body using the visual outputs of biofeedback, you learn to make internal adjustments for a speedy return to another, more positive mind state, whether this is focus, concentration, or relaxation. These strategies for returning to a positive baseline state are an integral part of biofeedback training. The process is very entertaining, as the computer tasks are designed as games: each level, when completed, opens to another, more challenging step, giving you an instant feedback on your progress.